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Liberty coach Walt Hopkins calls out poor officiating all season after 1-point playoff loss

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New York Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins voiced frustration at the officiating after a one-point loss to the fifth-seeded Phoenix Mercury in the first round of the WNBA playoffs on Thursday night.

The Mercury advanced over the eighth-seeded Liberty, 83-82, on a free throw by Brianna Turner with 0.4 seconds left. Sabrina Ionescu got a final 3-point heave off for the Liberty on the inbound and was potentially fouled, but there was no call. It didn't appear the officials reviewed it, either.

It was neither of those moments that Hopkins took issue with as much as it was his squad's treatment the entire game and season.

Liberty's Hopkins calls out officiating

Hopkins was asked after the loss for his thoughts on the game coming down to the wire. After a long pause, he targeted the lack of calls.

"There's a lot of things I want to say about the officiating in the WNBA and about the lack of respect this team has gotten all season," the second-year head coach said. "But I can't say that because referees are above reproach. They don't have to do a press conference after the games. They don't have to explain the mistakes they made. Why they do what they do.

"I don't know where the accountability's gonna come from, but it needs to happen. It was a bad season. The way they treated us was bad."

Hopkins said there was a play where he believed center Natasha Howard was fouled and another where Michaela Onyenwere was clearly fouled. Neither was called. The final shot attempt by Ionescu was also a close one, and should have at least been reviewed for all of the other times this season referees have taken to the video screen for less.

Ionescu couldn't say definitely she was fouled, but did say she was hit by Griner on the shot.

"I was," she said. "I don't know if it was before or after the .4 seconds went out. But I mean, I fell. I was hit."

The contest came down to the final seconds, but it was an impressive, unstoppable 3-point shooting night by the Mercury's Sophie Cunningham that decided the game.

Mercury's fouls compared to Liberty, league

The Mercury were 15-for-18 from the line, including a 6-for-9 night from Brianna Turner, a third-year forward, and 4-for-4 from Griner, a former MVP. The Liberty went 6-for-7. Howard didn't step to the line once. In all 22 fouls were called against the Liberty and 15 against the Mercury.

In their four games, the Mercury took 82 free throws to New York's 37. The Liberty's four-game total was slightly more than the total shots the Mercury took in their first meeting when they shot 28-for-33.

Over the court of the season, the Liberty took the fewest free throw attempts of any team at 18.2 per 100 possessions and 470 overall. That's a drop from 2020 when it was 22.8 (eighth).

The Mercury took the second-most at 25.2 and 620, respectively, in 2021. They trailed only the Aces. It was the same in 2020 when they averaged 26.1.

The issue of a foul discrepancy has been raised repeatedly this season by the Los Angeles Sparks and head coach Derek Fisher. They've argued that fouls on Nneka Ogwumike aren't being called. The team is second-to-last in total free throw attempts (499) and Ogwumike, another former MVP, averages 2.2 per game in 31.7 average minutes on the floor.

Hopkins says lack of calls is about youth

Hopkins pointed out that the lack of calls wasn't because the Liberty, a team built on shooting 3s, weren't going into the paint. And Howard agreed that her team wasn't getting calls because of youth.

"It's not that we don't go there," Hopkins said. "It's that we don't get respect because we're a young team."

"Absolutely," Howard said. "We're still a young team, we didn't get any respect at all because we're a young team.

Howard averaged 2.9 free throw attempts per 36 minutes, nearly equaling her previous lows of 2.8 and 2.7 in 2020 and 2017, respectively.

The Liberty were the youngest team in the WNBA in 2020, but added veteran pieces in Howard, Betnijah Laney and Sami Whitcomb in the offseason. The Wings, who lost earlier in the evening to the Sky, are now the youngest. And the Liberty have the advantage of championship presence in Whitcomb (two titles) and Howard (three).

Hopkins said that that experience is a fair point and questions about difference in calls is good to ask those making the calls.